A Better Way to be Inclusive at Alberta's Universities

Two incidents at two different Alberta schools have hammered home an important lesson for me about how to defend diversity, respect, and civic engagement on our campuses. This fall semester has seen issues of race and identity go viral at two of the province’s institutions. First was the “Trump Hat” video at Mount Royal University and then came “Turban, eh!” at the University of Alberta. The intimidation tactics on display in the Mount Royal video have unfairly brought hate and threats of violence to Zoe Slusar, the girl who demanded the hat's removal. A few weeks later we saw something very different happen at the U of A when Arundeep Singh Sandhu focused on creating a positive defiance to racism. He was right, you cannot defeat fear with intimidation, but you can make it look ridiculous in a way that unifies decent people. We need people like Slusar who are brave enough to show leadership but we also need that leadership to more closely follow the tactics Arundeep proposed in Edmonton.  

When Slusar confronted a fellow student with a demand to remove his Trump Hat she unknowingly put form to the feelings of siege many whites who support Donald Trump have been feeling. Trump’s slogan of “make America great again” feeds on a growing fear of cultural and economic inadequacy. Many progressives don't yet understand the fuel they give to these fears through their often condescending and dismissive attitudes. Worse yet is the reactionary right who believe this narrative, and have responded with brutality. In Slusar’s case they dug up a ton of personal information and threatened to rape and murder her family. There’s no moral equivalency between these two wrongs. It did no good for anyone when Slusar targeted a lone Trump supporter by issuing an ultimatum, his hat or punishment from the University president. Media and online spectators defended Mr. Trump Hat’s freedom of speech but in private the deplorables tried to ruin Slusar’s life. Minor intimidation in the name of good unleashed evil and this is the status quo young people, especially young women, will be confronted with every time they speak out. It should horrify every Liberal and Conservative that there’s a keyboard warrior out there looking to collect enough information about you to harass you into silence.

That same kind of scum rolled out their intimidation tactics in our provincial capital via a poster campaign targeted at our turban-wearing friends and neighbours. Like Slusar’s attackers they wanted to inflame and isolate, their “F@#$ Your Turban” posters were an attempt to create division among Canadians. For Canadian Sikhs and Muslims the turban is a symbol and faith but it holds larger meaning within our shared Canadian history as the garment worn by innumerable soldiers willing to fight and die in defence of the Canadian lifestyle. If shouting back didn't help, then how can our generation respond to such tasteless and ignorant attacks on our countrymen? Arundeep, an Edmonton millennial and former city council candidate, had barely articulated his idea to hold a turban tutorial for the curious before it took off. Look in the political arena to see just how effective this approach is. Conservatives like Jason Kenney and Liberals like Justin Trudeau praised the response in the halls of government and Arundeep was invited to share his thoughts with television and radio news organisations across Alberta. A brilliant response to discrimination. This time the ignorant look idiotic while everyone else comes closer together.

I'm trying to make a point here that the next time you see someone being generally discriminatory, use the opportunity to grow the conversation instead of shrinking it. The young generations have shown a capability for this leadership. The age of social media has brought with it fear, intimidation, harassment, and isolation tactics and it’s up to us to pry these platforms back from the detestable shouters and shamers. It'll be hard and filled with forced smiles, but tolerance cannot be achieved in fiction or history through the deployment of threats and intimidation, no matter how noble the goal. A student at Mount Royal with the right goals but wrong actions has faced psychological torture for her momentary lapse of judgement. That’s sick. Meanwhile a different approach in Edmonton has turned insult into enlightenment and I think that’s pretty cool. Let’s not be politically correct bullies or criminally disturbed cyber-stalkers in life and online. It seems to me there’s a nice space in the middle for those of us who strive to be fast on our feet, sharp in our minds and quick with our hearts. Where on that spectrum do you want our future to be forged?

Your friend,

Warren Mitchell